Why go to a restaurant to make your own meal? It seems to defy logic, but a microtrend of do-it-yourself eateries in town is catering to the hands-on crowd.
A bright, good-natured sprawl called the Mongolian Barbeque opened this summer in Wrigleyville, where it's quickly attracted a following of avid stir-fryers. It originated in London--where there are eight locations--and came here via Ann Arbor and Royal Oak, Michigan. The drill is simple: you're greeted, seated, given a bit of basic training, then sent off to the buffets. There's a simple soup and salad bar included in the all-you-can-eat dinner ($10.95) or lunch ($7.95).
Next you create. Pick up a soup bowl and begin with one of the meats or seafoods: strips of chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, pork, cod, calamari, or shrimp. The house suggests only one meat per dish, mainly for uniform cooking time. Then add some veggies--mushrooms, onions, cabbage, baby corn, sprouts, water chestnuts, leeks, peppers, squash, or broccoli--and tofu or pasta.
Next up are the oils (olive, sesame, and garlic), sauces (black bean, sweet-and-sour, teriyaki, mustard, barbecue, and wine), and spices (curry, cayenne, dill, garlic, ginger, and other seasonings). Your first temptation might be to toss them all in. Don't. The house wisely recommends two ladles of sauce and one of oil per bowl, though I went heavier on both garlic oil and black-bean sauce for most of my concoctions. I also went heavy on the cayenne and curry.
After filling your bowl to the brim bring it to the griddle, a five-foot, circular black-iron sheet--a modern version of the shields the ancient Mongol armies cooked on. A grill chef empties your bowl, stirs and tosses its contents a few times with a canoe paddle, then deftly swipes it all back into the bowl. Our party made more than a dozen trips and never had a dish undercooked or overdone.
I found the combination of leeks, lamb, and garlic felicitous, while a friend kept making up recipes and writing them down, doing especially well with black beans and seafood. If you're not a creative cook there are several house recipes to try.
Not long after the Mongolian Barbecue opened, a similar spot called Do Your Own Thing opened a few blocks south. The look and style are a bit different, but the routine and the fixings are essentially the same, with a $12 price tag on the all-you-can-eat dinner, including salad bar.
The oldest do-it-yourself restaurant--and still the most intimate and romantic after 30 years--is Geja's Cafe in Lincoln Park. It's been here so long people sometimes forget about it and how much fun it is to have fondue dinners while being serenaded by a Spanish guitarist in this dark-wooded cellar.
There are three fondue courses, beginning with that 50s party favorite, cheese. A pot of molten Gruyere, along with wine and kirsch, burbles before you on a fancy little Sterno cooker; you spear some bread, apple wedges, or grapes and capture all the cheese mix you can. I find this a limited joy.
My particular fondue fondness is the main course, a selection of beef tenderloin, chicken breast, lobster, sea scallops, shrimp, and veggies, alone or in any given combination. A pot of oil heats over the flame; you jab a piece of meat, fish, or vegetable and simmer it quickly. The waiter briefs you on cooking times.
The only admonition is not to eat off your cooking fork. Unload it, then use the dining fork to immerse the morsel in one of the eight sauces provided, which range from routine barbecue, cocktail, and teriyaki to excellent dill, horseradish, curry, and honey-mustard. The plain butter sauce is wonderful with lobster or scallops. I yearn for a rich bearnaise sauce to go with the fine quality meats, but owner John Davis denies us this luxury. What he does provide, however, is one of the city's best wine lists at the best prices around.
Dessert fondue is strictly for chocoholics. Dip chunks of fruit or marshmallow into a fudgey brew flamed with orange liqueur. This or any fondue can be ordered a la carte. The whole three-course banquet costs from $18.95 to 28.95 per person.
For a high-class version of the backyard barbecue try the Butcher Shop steak house in River North. In a paneled, clublike setting you get to visit a couple of display cases filled with steaks: rib eye, T-bone, fillet, strip, or sirloin in various sizes; prices range from $16.95 to $24.95. Pick out the one you want and carry it to the large, superhot grill. You can apply butter, salt, garlic powder, or Cajun seasoning to suit your taste and slap it on the grill. Of course, the chef will do it all for you if you wish, but why come here for that?
There's also a fish selection from a very limited menu, usually salmon or tuna. I put some Cajun on a gigantic double tuna steak ($17.95) and garlic powder and salt on a 20-ounce T-bone ($19.95), then cooked them both very rare--about ten minutes. Apart from being perfectly cooked, the quality of the tuna was excellent; the steak was not quite as good but decent for the price. This ain't exactly Morton's.
The Mongolian Barbecue is located at 3330 N. Clark, 325-2300; Do Your Own Thing is at 2815 N. Broadway, 472-2100; Geja's Cafe is at 340 W. Armitage, 281-9101; and the Butcher Shop is at 358 W. Ontario, 440-4900.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.